Youth, protests, and the politics of ethnicity in Nigeria

After the massacre of youth peacefully protesting police extortion and brutality at the Lekki toll gate on October 20, 2020, there was almost a unanimous agreement that the youth will unite to teach the cowardly, conniving, and condescending Lagos politicians a bitter lesson at the 2023 general elections for the role they played in the massacre and its eventual cover-up and schemes to deny justice for those killed.

Despite the anger and the resolve of the youth, I doubted the possibility of the youth acting in concert three years later to punish politicians at the polls. My doubt was informed by two reasons.

First, Nigerians have a short attention span for political scandals and abuse of public trust or treasury.

Actions that would ordinarily result in the political death of a candidate elsewhere are totally forgiven or forgotten a few months after and the politician can resume his/her normal political activities as if nothing has happened and with absolutely no baggage.

All one needs is time. It heals all things and forgives all things political in Nigeria.

The 2023 election is fast descending into ethnic bickering with at least two of the three frontline presidential candidates explicitly deploying the ethnic dog whistle

Second, ethnicity remains so salient in Nigeria that the moment the ethnic dog whistle is sounded, the youth will quickly abandon any so-called national and generational cause and fall in line to ensure the success of their co-ethnics at the polls.

True to my expectations, the 2023 election is fast descending into ethnic bickering with at least two of the three frontline presidential candidates explicitly deploying the ethnic dog whistle to rally their co-ethnics to their causes.

All the talk about policies, the economy, inflation, human rights abuses, and holding those who facilitated or looked the other way as protesting youth were being massacred at the Lekki toll gate have now been forgotten.

All one hears and sees as the election draws closer is the great saliency of ethnicity and ethnic coalitions in determining who becomes the next president of Nigeria.

So much has been written about ethnicity in Nigeria and the pathologies it engenders. I do not intend to go over the arguments again.

The only comment I have to make is that ultimately, it is the failure of Nigerian states to build a capable state around which the different ethnic groups could unite around that is exacerbating the centrifugal tendencies and forcing people to identify more with their ethnic groups than the state.

That is why, for instance, in Nigeria elections are increasingly appearing like ethnic censuses, especially for the main candidates and their ethnic groups.

Even for the ordinary man and woman on the street who has not much to gain politically and regardless of their level of education, s/he finds it extremely hard to resist the ethnic dog whistle because even though they profess allegiance to the state (as is globally popular and encouraged), in reality, and in their minds, their real loyalty lies with the ethnic group because the state is weak, dysfunctional and even antagonistic towards its citizens.

This appeal to ethnic politics has stifled all social movements towards change and continues to make popular protests/agitations/uprisings difficult in Nigeria with multi-ethnic nationalities.

Whereas popular protests have broken out in North Africa and Middle Eastern countries that resulted in the overthrow of entrenched dictators, such a protest in Nigeria Africa quickly descends into ethnic battles.

For all the sophistication and unwillingness of the Yorubas to vote for Obasanjo in 1999 (they were spoilt for choice then as the two presidential candidates were Yorubas anyway), the moment the House of Representatives under Ghali Umar Na’Abba took steps to introduce articles of impeachment against President Obasanjo for his repeated breaches of the constitution and abuse of power, the Yoruba opposition party – Alliance for Democracy (AD) – quickly abandoned all pretenses to policy disagreements and began rallying to save their kin.

Prominent members of the party who claimed to be viscerally opposed to Obasanjo and all he stands for and whom one would think would support the impeachment bid to curb Obasanjo’s penchant for abuse of power, shamefully descended into the ethnic arena, calling the impeachment “a ploy to take power away from the southwest” and threatening an ethnic war were the impeachment to go along.

Virtually the same thing happened in 2012 during the Occupy Nigeria protests. Whereas the protests and strikes were successful in the southwest, northcentral, northeast, and northwest regions of the country, the president’s south-south and neighbouring south-east regions were mere bystanders initially.

Read also: How tribe, poverty will influence 2023 elections

But as the protests gathered strength and began threatening Jonathan’s hold on power, his ethnic kith and kin began to grumble loudly and threaten Nigeria’s oil stability were he to be forced out of office. In fact, in an interview I had with Peter Esele, former president of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), in 2013, he admitted the labour unions ultimately pulled the plug on the strikes and protests when it became clear the protesters had moved beyond the removal of petroleum subsidy (which was the initial reason for the protests and strike) and were now focused on regime change

Of course, we were all witnesses to the #EndSARS protests against police brutality in October 2020. While it was quite popular in the south, president Buhari’s north stayed quiet and when the protests began gathering steam, they began to accuse the protesters of wanting to overthrow the government of Buhari. Even the APC wing in the Southwest was accused of supporting the protesters.

And since the APC southwest wing is desperately waiting to inherit power in 2023 and any act of disloyalty may cost it, it’s leading representatives in the Buhari administration – including the vice president, a professor of law, Senior Advocate of Nigeria and a pastor to boot, and infrastructure minister, also a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, remained unusually mute when soldiers were sent to massacre peaceful protesters on October 20, 2020. Instead, ethnic foot soldiers were sent to work to accuse other ethnic groups of destroying Lagos.

As I argued on this page in the past, the ethnic quest for power in 2023 has had a damaging effect on the political bigwigs of the Southwest. They have conveniently hidden their disgust at the despoliation of their region. They have deadened their consciences.

They have tolerated Buhari for eight years and will not now back out when the time to achieve their ultimate goal is approaching. They will bet on the saliency of ethnicity to rally the southwest to their course in 2023 – and I hate to admit it, but their calculations are spot on!

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